Monday, 13 February 2012

Remember How She Took Those Carolina Hills

One ubiquitous feature of those works officially anointed the Great American Road Trip Books—those, unlike On the Road, whose writer used only one automobile for the whole trip—is the nearly fetishistic relationship between the driver and his car. In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller wrote of his 1932 Buick: “The damned thing behaves like a flirtatious woman.” The scary part there is that we know quite well how Henry Miller treats flirtatious women. Worse even was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose 1924 serial in Motor magazine issues a challenge to all later road trip writers to beat, or at least meet, his intense and creepy anthropomorphization of the 1918 Marmon he and Zelda christen, referring to the car’s lopsidedness and general state of disarray, “The Rolling Junk.”

The car, Fitzgerald writes in "The Cruise of the Rolling Junk," suffers from “a broken backbone unsuccessfully reset.” It has “spinal trouble” and “suffered also from various chronic stomach disorders and from astigmatism in both lamps.” When the Rolling Junk blows out a tire in Philadelphia, a passerby asks whether the couple has another tire in the trunk, for such an emergency. “We did have another,” Fitzgerald writes. “Its name was Lazarus. It was scarred and shiny and had had innumerable operations upon its bladder.”

 A Marmon, similar to the one driven by the Fitzgeralds on their 1920 adventure from Connecticut to Alabama.

Those who have hunted covered bridges with me, those who have driven with me from Montreal to New York or vice versa, or, let’s be honest, those who have had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes—any readers fitting these descriptions know that I don’t exactly enter this discussion with clean hands. You have heard of Mortimer. You have heard all about Mortimer.

Originally purchased by my parents for Cassie's last years of high school, Mortimer is a 2002 Honda Civic—beige, comfortable, gregarious. I began driving him when I got my license in May 2007. We have grown closer in recent years, clocking countless hours in upstate New York, southern Quebec, Maine, New Brunswick, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania. I seem to have forgotten the origins of his name, though for a while I had a ceramic koala bear also named Mortimer taped to the dashboard. It represented Grandpa, whose balding pattern and bone structure makes him look very much, and in the best way, like a koala. There is also a minor character named Mortimer in a minor Woody Allen film, though seeing as I remember neither the character nor the film, it seems unlikely I would have named my car after him. 

Until recently, the only problems in our relationship had originated with me. I slowed down too slowly, sped up too speedily. My insistence on listening to jams at an unhealthily high volume ultimately led to some communications issues, as when it took who knows how many miles to hear the rusty metal bit scraping along the Trans-Canadian at 90 mph. Then there was the rainy day when I accelerated—accelerated—too fast around a wet curve, swung 270 degrees counter-clockwise and across the double yellow, backing Morty’s ass up on the opposite curb and into a couple small trees. As little shoots of water slid down his headlights on that empty, rainy road, I felt I was not crying alone. But Morty was pissed. He left home and shacked up with some grimy mechanic for almost a month.

Late in December, when Mortimer pooped out at the mall, I felt abandoned, disappointed. That weekend, when Brahna and I drove my mother’s red Mazda 6 to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—of course, the only place for civilized people on New Year’s Eve—we drove around the old country roads examining the Amish and gawking at covered bridges. I felt Mortimer’s absence, and, quite strangely, felt sorry he was missing out.

 Mom, Brahna, and Dad watch Mortimer loaded onto the tow truck, late December 2011. He needed a new transmission.

As explorers, we name a new world: “America.” As parents, we name a new child: “Richard Henry Kreitner.” As quixotic knights, we name a horse: “Rocinante.” And now, as drivers, we name a car: “Mortimer.”

We name that which we can name—that which has no name already, that which cannot, or cannot yet, name itself. We name something in order to dictate the future life of its still embryonic character. We name that which we do not yet fully know in order to feel that we do know it—a small, stolen intimacy that is the first step to what we hope may someday magically become the real thing.

There is an inverse correlation between one’s technical understanding of one's car and the extent to which one forms an anthropomorphized relationship with it. For several reasons, I never bothered to learn anything about who my car really was as a person, so to speak, preferring to craft a silly projected identity, "Mortimer," and to let my father's preferred mechanic do the job.

In this, I have stood, contrary to Newton, on the shoulders of fellow ignorant dwarfs. Henry Miller and his traveling companion, the American painter Abe Rattner, were just the same. “The first car we looked at was the one we selected,” Miller writes. “Neither of us knew anything about cars; we just took the man’s word for it that it was a good, reliable vehicle.” 

Though The Cruise of the Rolling Junk is a heavenly fictionalized account of a drive the Fitzgeralds took in 1920 from Connecticut to Alabama, one aspect of the book is too pitch-perfect to make up: the depiction of the couple as hopelessly Yankee and hopelessly stupid about the workings of the automobile. Like many ignoramuses past and future, they are ashamed at this stupidity, and take refuge from that shame in the formation of bizarrely personalized, and ultimately superficial, relationships not just with the Rolling Junk itself, but with its various parts. As the Philadelphia mechanic sets to work on their tire (“after a gay spasm of cursing”), the Fitzgeralds stand idly by and watch:

He took off the injured tire and contemptuously showed me a large hole I’d overlooked in the casing. I assented weakly to his assertion that I’d have to have a whole new tire. While he effected the necessary substitution Zelda and I amused ourselves by naming the rest of the tires. The two in front we called Sampson and Hercules, because of their comparative good health. The rear axle was guarded on the right by the aged Lazarus, covered with sores…

 F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the Rolling Junk.

According to Jameson Wetmore, a scholar of technology and society at Arizona State University, we form relationships with our automobiles to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed both by the complex operations of the vehicle and by our embarrassing ignorance of them. In an article titled “Moving Relationships: Befriending the Automobile to Relieve Anxiety,” Professor Wetmore notes that “the practice of envisioning an automobile as a companion is often wrapped up in concerns about reliability and safety and can be a psychological response to calm the anxiety that such concerns cause.” The Fitzgeralds, in this view, obsessively name the tires and various “appendages”—their word—of the Rolling Junk in order to overcompensate for their lack of any sincere relationship with, or interest in, the workings of the car itself. The vehicle is to its passengers just a novel way to get from one place to another, a means to an end: quite the opposite of friendship in the real and original—the human—sense of the term.

If "Mortimer" is just a projection and a defense mechanism, that identity I forced upon the Civic will surely begin to crumble as I am forced, over the next few months, to acquaint myself on a deeper and more sincere level with the car on its own terms. Already, beginning to learn the practicalities of what makes the car run makes me feel silly for having spoken to it as if to a person, and for having coaxed it up high hills.

And yet, I expect that something of "Mortimer" will remain. There seems to be a certain type of relationship one can have with one's car that is not based on fear and anxiety, selfishness and miscommunication, but rather on pride and performance, dignity and fidelity. If Mortimer does land Brahna and I safely back home after four months and 12,000 miles, and drastic changes in weather, how could I not be proud?

Shortly after the Fitzgeralds arrive in Montgomery, the reminiscence begins. "Remember how she took those Carolina hills?" Such an ascription of will to the Rolling Junk seems different from the Fitzgeralds' earlier silliness, as it is this time based on shared experience, achievement, and respect.

I hope to attain a similar level of understanding between me and Brahna and Mortimer on the trip, and also between us and the people we meet. On past trips, Brahna and I have loved meeting strange new people--characters, we call them--and adding them to our list for future reminiscence. There is, of course, Bonnie, the impossibly down-home breakfast cook at the Lancaster County B&B. There was the couple in the Acadia campground who told us about all the dogs they had rescued, and who then yelled bloody murder at them all night. There was Bruce, the waiter in Bar Harbor who, though the restaurant was otherwise empty, stood silently next to our table through the whole meal.

As travelers, we treat those we meet in new places as strange characters worthy of fiction: it heightens our sense of ourselves as travelers and writers, and wards off the sense--always threatening to rise to the surface--that just because you drive through the Carolinas doesn't mean you know the Carolinians. To have a mental list of characters feels enriching, but it just covers up for a deeper and more ineradicable poverty. To crystallize someone in a frozen pose, to act as if she exists on Earth only in order to enrich our vacation and, later, our stories, to basically use her as a means to our own ends--this is precisely what the Fitzgeralds did to the Rolling Junk and what I have always done to Mortimer. It is to pretend an acquaintance with, and knowledge of, that which you are actually too scared or ill-equipped to get to know on its own terms.

The establishment of real human relationships instead of these fake caricatures requires the same determination and effort as does the process of opening oneself to learning the actual operations of the automobile. Henry Miller himself noticed how one's understanding of a car can influence the way human beings themselves interact with one another. “The automobile was invented in order for us to learn how to be patient and gentle with one another," he wrote. "It doesn’t matter about the parts, or even about the parts of parts, nor what model or what year it is, so long as you treat her right. What a car appreciates is responsiveness."

Just like a woman, or a man.

1 comment:

  1. In the front cover of the book in invisible ink reads--

    R, B and M,

    burn some of that rubber
    munch some of that road
    follow the yellow line to
    fried chicken and tacos

    enjoy the ride